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Summary Chart: Gestalt Theory

Human Nature

Rooted in existentialism and phenomenology, Gestalt counseling and psychotherapy focuses attention on the holistic nature of humankind. Gestalt counselors and therapists strive to encompass the whole organism and operate from the perspective that human beings have the capacity and strength to grow, to develop, and to become the persons they want to be. A basic assumption is that individuals can deal with their life problems if they are fully aware of what is happening in and around them.

Major Constructs

There are a number of major constructs connected with Gestalt counseling and psychotherapy: holism, the concept of unifying wholes, which includes mind and body, past and present, and individual and environment; field theory, the idea that the individual in his or her environment produces a psychological field in which self-regulation can take place; figure-ground, the idea that the client's unfinished business becomes "figure" or foreground during the therapeutic process and everything else temporarily recedes to "ground" or background; here-and-now orientation, emphasis on the present rather than on the past or the future for the purpose of promoting the growth process; and boundaries and polarities, the client's "definition" in relation to the environment and traits existing on the opposite ends of the same continuum (Yontef & Fuhr, 2005).


The goals of Gestalt counseling and psychotherapy are to identify themes that are central to the client's self-organization; conceptualize the issues and concerns of the client that will guide the sequence, timing, and methods used; establish and maintain a safe professional environment; and provide an atmosphere that invites contact between the client and the counselor or therapist.

Change Process

Change results from the identification and working through of a variety of blocks or interferences that prevent the client from achieving a holistic integration of all aspects of self and the capacity to achieve responsibility for self. Clients work through the cliche, phony, impasse, implosive, and exploding layers of neurosis during this process.


Usually labeled as experiments because they are procedures aimed at discovery and not exercises in the traditional sense, interventions are designed to control or initiate behavior change (Melnick et al., 2005). Gestalt interventions may include locating feelings, enactment and confrontation, empty chair, dream work, dialogue, making the rounds, unfinished business, playing the projection, rehearsal, and exaggeration.


There are several limitations and criticisms of Gestalt therapy. Gestalt theory is said to deemphasize the cognitive components of the counseling and psychotherapy process. It is often seen as a potpourri of theories and philosophies. The holistic approaches of Gestalt therapy can be incompatible with today's emphasis on time-limited, brief approaches. Another criticism is that the theory places too much emphasis on the here and now. Finally, Gestalt confrontation and emphasis on exploring emotion may not work well with cultures that emphasize collectivistic responsibility or that do not advocate sharing emotional expression.

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